Hampton Sides’ Voyage to the Pole

In his latest book, the author of Ghost Soldiers and Hellhound on His Trail takes readers to the kingdom of ice aboard the USS Jeannette.

| August 07, 2014
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Think of it: the North Pole as ice-free — a temperate sea circled by a ring of ice. Follow what was believed to be a warm-water Pacific current through the Bering Strait and beyond, and a gap in the ice would be your gateway to the pole ... smooth sailing. That's how one widely held theory in the 19th century had it.

But was the North Pole a place of sea monsters? The site of a lost civilization? Or did a powerful whirlpool lead to the center of the earth? Or maybe the Arctic wasn't an ocean at all but a land mass rich in minerals and a link between the Old World and the New. Nobody knew, because no one, by land or by sea, had made it to the North Pole. But that didn't stop scientists and cartographers from theorizing about it and the popular imagination from fantasizing over what had become, in the words of the journal Nature, "the most important field of discovery that remains for this or a future generation to work out."

By the mid-1870s, James Gordon Bennett Jr., playboy-publisher of the New York Herald, wanted in on that field of discovery: He would finance, out of his own deep pockets, a voyage to the North Pole. Bennett had already sent Henry Stanley into Africa to find David Livingstone, and Stanley's dispatches published in the Herald had been a sensation — and a sure-fire way to sell newspapers. But who to head an expedition to the Arctic? Bennett didn't need to think hard or look far. He had his man: Lieutenant George Washington De Long, who'd made a name for himself on icy seas (and in the pages of the Herald) in the heroic search for a lost ship off the coast of Greenland in 1873.

Before that mission, De Long had never been to the Arctic, had never expressed any interest in the Arctic. But when he returned to New York, his wife, Emma, saw in De Long a changed man. As she put it, "The polar virus was in George's blood to stay." It was a "virus" that would stay with him throughout "The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette."

That's the subtitle to the remarkable new book by native Memphian Hampton Sides, and "grand" and "terrible" are indeed the polar opposites but twin terms to describe the epic, harrowing voyage that Sides recounts in In the Kingdom of Ice (Doubleday).

Sides' Ghost Soldiers took readers on a rescue mission in the Philippines during World War II. His Blood and Thunder headed to the American West of Kit Carson's day. And Hellhound on His Trail brought Sides — who lives today in Santa Fe — back to his hometown and in the footsteps of James Earl Ray.

In the Kingdom of Ice takes us into the heart of the Arctic and draws from primary source materials, including ship logs, journals, diaries (which miraculously survived the expedition), along with letters and committee hearings, to reconstruct every knowable triumph and disaster aboard the Jeannette, the steam-driven ship captained by De Long and manned by 32 fellow officers, seamen, scientists, special-duty crew members, a cook, a steward, and two Inuit hunters and dog-drivers. Could central casting have assembled a more memorable cast of characters, each of them brought vividly back to life by Sides? And could there have been a more capable captain than De Long to head such a crew? De Long was single-minded (but never reckless), enormously resourceful, a brilliant observer, skilled writer, devoted husband, and respected leader: a man among men in a test of endurance in the otherworldly kingdom of ice.

"A beautiful spectacle," De Long at one point wrote to describe the trapped Jeannette shrouded in snow and frost. But he would go on to write less enthusiastically of an enormous, floating ice pack ("terribly wild and broken," "terrible masses of hummocks and rubble," "puzzling masses of ice and water") until, late in the voyage, language itself seemed to give out and arrive at one word: "mess." As in: "a fearful mess," "such a mess of ... rotten ice."

I won't do Sides the disservice of describing this profoundly moving, unforgettable story's fearful outcome. Readers should go into it with as little foreknowledge as possible — the better to discover for themselves (as De Long and his crewmen did) parts unknown.

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